Author: Caddia, Luca
Date published: December 1, 2011
THE VIOLATED MAN OF LETTERS: DICKENS STUDIES BETWEEN TRUTH AND APPROPRIATION Furneaux, Holly. Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 282 pp. $99.00.
Jordan, John O. Supposing Bleak House. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. 200 pp. $35.00.
Nayder, Lillian. The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011. 359 pp. $35.00.
The three books here reviewed could not be more different from one another, apparently. What subject may a queer reading of Dickens's oeuvre, a biography of Mrs. Charles Dickens, and a psychoanalytic study of Bleak House ever have in common? The answer is in fact very simple: family. One of the major subjects in Dickens's fiction is dealt with by the authors of these books in ways that try to reshape our ideas of what it is that makes his domestic plots or biographical details interesting to us. The focus on our reception is very strong in all of these books and I choose to consider it as a major issue in this essay review for reasons related to the relationship between the ethics of reading and the appropriation of the past by the present.
According to Holly Furneaux's Queer Dickens, "it is a rigorously defamiliarized domestic that Dickens persistently recommends" (23). That is why his fiction matters to queer studies. By arguing how Dickens and other major Victorian novelists all make use of narratives "that celebrate surrogate parenting, particularly foster fathering, to question the assumed moral superiority of the biological family unit and denaturalize the received family pattern of physically related kin" (25), Furneaux shows how families of choice inform Dickens's fiction in ways that challenge twentieth-century reductions of the complexity of Victorian practices. Her main concern is to alert the reader about the possibility for the queer subject to participate in the shaping of familial models-since queer theorists who see domestic life and collective political action as parallel lines fail to "recognize the continuing contestation of what constitutes family and the increasing distance between sexual and reproductive agendas" (26). Yet her analysis of Dickens's own reasons for celebrating the suitability of the confirmed bachelor or the single male parent to foster a child (extended all through chapters 1 and 2) does not run the risk of undergoing an uneven development. On the contrary, the author always gives the impression of having a genuine concern for the otherness she is dealing with. When treating the subject of Mr. Brownlow's motives to foster Oliver Twist, for instance, she acknowledges the regulatory risk in considering the possibility of his erotic interests towards the child but also reminds the reader that most of the adaptations of Oliver Twist felt the need to create family ties between the two, which do not appear in Dickens's novel. This specific instance reminds us that while Victorian ideas of childhood were so different from ours that Mr. Brownlow's choice should not be reduced to one single reason-whatever that is-it is also true that the modern anxiety with pedophilia makes it very hard for us not to consider the option, hence the sanitization of Mr. Brownlow by means of the establishment of a family connection to Oliver in most of the novel's adaptations.
Furneaux's discourse on Dickens's vision of educational reform, which he described extensively between the 1830s and the 1850s, is appropriate, because it stresses interest in personal attention to the child against the risk of a depersonalizing structure similar to a military hierarchy. (See Lauren Goodlad Victorian Literature and the Victorian State: Character and Governance in a Liberal Society .) In light of the systematic accusations characters like David Copperfield have been subjected to since the release of Mary Poovey's Uneven Developments (1988), I have found this point particularly important. Critics who apostrophize David Copperfield's progress in life as delusive and interested do not seem to recognize that the context of the novel makes it imperative for David to reject an idea of discipline that would make him similar to an automaton. If his efforts in learning shorthand and compiling a dictionary seem to unmask the difference between the kind of discipline endorsed by the protagonist and Mr. Murdstone's or Mr. Creakle's as one of degree and not of quality, the role of affections in David's career is what ultimately sets the standards for the quality of his life, if not his honesty.
Furneaux's stress on affection between men not only is fundamental to her reading of Dickens's oeuvre but also represents an excellent response to the argument, first introduced by Eve Sedgwick, that in order for homosociality to be maintained, the homosexual subject must be repudiated. This also explains why so far "critical attention has focused on instances where same-sex desires energetically break out as acts of destructions and violence" (207). In order to sustain this idea, the central chapters of the book (3 and 4) choose instances in the Dickens canon where homosociality and homosexuality entertain a continuous relationship and investigate the innumerable ways in which Victorian fiction manages to accommodate homosexual desire: in-lawing, which "unravels the pervasive current logic that posits heterosexuality as the primary determinant of, or central motive for, family formation" (107), or emigration, which permits the exploration of anti-domestic lifestyles, are instances through which Furneaux succeeds in showing how practices always identified as subliminal and expulsive may also be read as new possibilities for the expression of the queer subject.
As far as in-lawing is concerned, I am persuaded by her conviction that "Dickens was interested in dismantling a culturally imposed opposition of masculinity and femininity by exposing the parity of male and female bodies and behaviors, a technique that he sustains through explorations of the resemblance of male and female siblings" (149). As to emigration, I find her interpretation of Dickens's use of Byron's poetry during key moments of departure and return in his fiction fertile, because it shows Dickens's interest in positive representations of characters who reject the domestic. A good article that argues for a continuity of the cultures endorsed by Byron and Dickens is Vincent Newey's "Rival Cultures: Charles Dickens and the Byronic Legacy," where the author argues that "Byronism functions for Dickens not simply as a negative indicator of true fulfillment and value, a 'bad life' that defines or in certain cases changes to become a 'good life,' but as a locus of positive creative attention." (See Andrew Redford and Mark Sandy, ed., Romantic Echoes in the Victorian Era .) Furneaux and Newey seem to agree that, through the employment of Byron in his fiction, Dickens shows a tension between nostalgia and projection toward desires that are best expressed outside the household. This has implications for the conception of Dickens as the champion of the domestic novel and deserves further exploration.
Arguably the most convincing thesis of the book is to be found in the last two chapters (5 and 6), where the discussion on male nursing is organized to show how Dickens works to redefine the concept of the gentleman through representations of nursing as a tactile experience, which is defined against physical violence. According to Furneaux, in figures like Mr. George from Bleak House, "Dickens celebrates a masculinity that could encompass a much more tender muscularity and in which nurture does not signal effeminacy but ideal manly virtue" (226). The argument is especially credible if we consider what did not constitute a gentleman: as Martin J. Wiener has convincingly argued in Men of Blood (2004), the mid-Victorian age favored an idea of gentlemanliness that, in order to prove effective toward women's emancipation and lower middle-class aspirations, advocated self-control as a cardinal virtue for men.
The final stress on manliness as a queer quality is also what leaves me more enthusiastic about Queer Dickens, that is, the somehow unlooked-for implication that the queer subject is only contingently related to the homosexual. A society like ours that favors gay people when they follow the consumerist model and internalize heterosexual prescriptions instead of pursuing new forms of family constructions is also a place where the concept of queer can be extended to nonstraight heterosexuals, i.e., people who live their attraction for the opposite sex in a nonnormative way and, more generally, whose identity cannot be reduced to their sexual choices. And whether or not Furneaux's book will manage to conquer the place it deserves within the field of gender studies may also depend on the willingness of queer theorists to accept this.
Whereas Furneaux's book tries to unveil the queer potential of Dickens's fiction, Lillian Nayder's The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth does its best to rebuild the reputation of the novelist's wife, who was notoriously rejected by him in 1858 by means of a humiliating judicial separation. Her main point being that the idea of Catherine Hogarth as incompetent is largely the creation of Charles Dickens, her book then aims to expose the mythic elements of this plotline in order to give Catherine new voice. It does this by reworking "the standard chronology of her life,...extending the boundaries of her existence." It also "reconceives the plotline of her life so that her separation from Dickens is not its defining and final moment" (2).
Nayder organizes the chapters of her book in such a way as to give prominence to Catherine's whole life, instead of merely focusing on the years when she was married to Dickens; she also inserts "interludes" dedicated to her sisters Mary, Georgina, and Helen, in order to show that their relationships could not be limited to rivalry for his affection. She thus embarks on an editing process opposite to that undertaken by Georgina, who erased Catherine's presence from the second volume of The Letters of Charles Dickens (1879) she co-edited with Mamie, Dickens's eldest daughter. Nayder is also very good with figures: she succeeds in challenging most of the assumptions perpetuated by critics and biographers against Catherine's domestic inability by showing banking records that prove she had a primary role in the household management.
The letters and documents Nayder makes use of in this book "provide a sense of the multiple roles Catherine played and the range of voices in which she spoke" (6), roles that include the social hostess, the sister, the mother, the author, and the patroness. To be sure, the material here employed is extensive-which does not mean exhaustive, since most of the crucial letters have disappeared or have been destroyed-but it is enough to make the reader sympathize with Nayder's motivated research, especially because her lucid honesty allows her subject to obstruct the author's main goal at the very beginning of the book. Indeed, as she writes in the introduction, "Catherine continued to think of herself in relation to her husband long after she stopped living with him...and she sought to exonerate herself from his charges by means of his voice rather than hers" (9). This appears to be so much the case that, when at the end of her life Catherine presented her letters from Dickens to her daughter Katey, she asked her to give them to the British Museum, so that the world could see that there was a time when he had loved her, as also asserted in Jane Elliott's play My Dearest Kate (1983). Despite all the efforts made in this book to relocate Catherine at the center of her own life, nevertheless, one cannot help but feel that Catherine could never really get over the man who had rejected her, especially when one realizes that Catherine is portrayed in this book as someone for whom conjugal life represented an effort in endurance. First described as a self-willed girl from an illuminated intellectual family, "Catherine entered into her engagement assuming that she would be able to influence her fiancÚ and enjoy her fair share of control" (54). What she soon discovered, however, was that her strong temper was tantamount to inadaptability, an important word that would be at the top of most of the accusations Dickens made to the members of his family, when they failed to obey his will.
Dickens's obsession with mesmerism is only one (although major) example among many that reveal how the symbolic, the real, and the historical grounds overlap in Nayder's method: she connects his passion for controlling other people's conscience (especially women's) as a fitting emblem for Catherine's experience of coverture during her marriage, coverture signifying "a woman's dependence on and subordination to her husband as well as his obligation to protect or 'cover' her" (90). This method is extended to Catherine's labor experience, an uncomfortable subject that Dickens exploited during their separation by representing his wife's size and appetite as destructive. (See Nayder 237.)
Whereas the Dickenses here deserve some praise for having attempted to reduce labor pains by means of the new and controversial chloroform, Nayder clarifies how this technology would objectify the woman's conscience and reinforce male supremacy.
It is this kind of supremacy that Nayder's Catherine had to accept throughout her marital years: unable to pursue independence for herself because of her family duties and the physical restrictions imposed upon her by her twelve pregnancies, Catherine associated with talented young women, who valued self-fulfillment and self-expression over self-sacrifice and whose career she was effective in launching: the pianist Christiana Weller (whom Dickens particularly disliked) and the American vocalist Abby Hutchinson, among others.
I found the final part of the book thought-provoking by virtue of its focus on wills: according to Nayder, whereas men tended to consolidate property in their wills, women often did the reverse, leaving "personal effects and small parcels of money to named individuals, many of them wider kin or friends" (335). Catherine's case is apt to defend this thesis: while Dickens saw all the members of his family who did not stoop to accept his will as good for nothing and treated them accordingly, Catherine conceived herself so indistinguishable from her kith and kin that her will, "unlike her husband's, acknowledges each of the children, regardless of success or failure. Aiming above all else to be loving, inclusive, and evenhanded, she organizes her bequests objectively, according to birth order" (336). She presented her engagement ring to her daughter Katey, who struggled between mother and father much more than Mamie did, and left an enamel snake ring to her sister Georgina instead of leaving her any mementos or relics from the Hogarth family.
In order to do full justice to her life, perhaps, not only should we acknowledge that Catherine did not become the heroine of her own life (to say it with Copperfield), but, more importantly, we should accept that she did not want to. Where this book succeeds for real is in its description of Charles and Catherine's differences as gender differences: when Dickens wrote to his wife that what made him "different-sometimes for good; sometimes I dare say for evil-from other men" was "the intense pursuit of an idea," he was honest enough to admit of the possibility of a bad outcome of his pursuits, but by excluding women from the comparison he magnified this difference as absolute. (See Madeleine House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson, ed., The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens , 224.) And maybe it was. Just think of a trivial example: when Dickens managed to persuade his wife to tour America with him in 1842, for instance, her main concern was to take her little children along. In order to have them always with her, Nayder writes, she took a sketch of them Daniel Maclise had made and "displayed [it] in her hotel rooms or unpacked [it] at night when she and her companions were on the road" (113). When I went to the Charles Dickens Museum in May 2011 and saw the sketch, I realized it was much bigger than I expected. The discovery of its size made me realize that Catherine was able to overcome contingent encumbrances in order to maintain family connections through space and time; her employment of such a kind of not-exactly-portable property seems to me to say more on her behalf than his harsh judgments of her do. In light of what Catherine considered her priority, the inadaptability Dickens accused her of simply becomes inessential, while his inability to appreciate his wife's pursuits, on the contrary, makes him appear just as stiff as he thought she was.
While Queer Dickens and The Other Dickens feed one facts, John O. Jordan's Supposing Bleak House attempts an intimate approach that defies hostile criticism from the very beginning: "I too have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages" (1), he writes, paraphrasing Bleak House's opening sentence. Jordan reveals the private reasons why he considers this to be the most powerful of all Dickens's novels and explains that the stories of Esther and her mother, which constitute the main subject of his analysis, are kept together by a "proto-psychoanalytic mythic structure" (44). Jordan's goal is to unveil this structure through a close reading of the novel, which will reveal how Dickens organized Bleak House in a way that can also be interpreted as an anticipation of the psychoanalytical process. Or processes, since one of the characteristics of this book is its concern for showing how Esther's narrative can easily be adapted to several psychoanalytic theories. Jordan certainly develops his analysis with the utmost conviction that Bleak House's psychoanalytic versatility is one of the reasons that makes it so complex and challenging, and perhaps he is right. But his way of listing and parading the different methods this novel appears to respond to so well is not, I am afraid, always crowned with success.
When describing Robert Storolow's biphasic model of understanding trauma, for instance, he explains that this approach "attributes causal force to a subsequent experience that activates pathological power latent in the original wound" (46). According to this model, the first experience becomes traumatic only because another experience follows that conceives it as such: in the case of Esther's neurosis, what seals the originary wound of her separation from her mother after her birth "and gives it pathogenic force would be the godmother's lack of responsive attunement" (47).
This discussion is followed by further examples of psychoanalytic concepts that should serve the purpose of supporting it but which end up stretching it until the reader is left with the impression that the author has almost lost command of his thesis. I had a clear impression of this when, in a subsequent chapter entitled "Specters," in which the story of the ghost of Chesney Wold is discussed, Jordan argues that "the story of England is the story of a trauma, inscribed on a woman's body and, although silent for long periods of time, insistently returning in times of crisis" (121). How does the biphasic model meet with the idea of an originary trauma that is only revived in the future? In the former instance, it is a following experience to decide that an already happened event will be a trauma; in the latter the appearance of a ghost is the proof that the original wound has been already effective in the determination of the trauma, so that any subsequent reappearance shows that there has been no change, no way out, perhaps no progress like the one hoped for or worked at in psychoanalytic therapies. Again, while analyzing one of the most intense passages in Esther's narrative (chapter 31), where words like "spot and time" are related to remembrance, the author relies on the concept of "the unknown thought," coined by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, without mentioning Wordsworth, whose Prelude, published a couple of years before Bleak House, had been so important for the author of David Copperfield. Perhaps the least convincing of Jordan's readings is that of Mr. Bucket as Orpheus and Esther as Eurydice in his comparison to the myth of Orpheus.
Had the author chosen to develop its strongest points, instead of choosing to find something of Bleak House in almost every psychoanalytic theory discussed in the twentieth century, this book might have been a gem, as demonstrated by some persuasive critical examples and a truly fascinating one; I am referring to his statement that "Esther's unconscious recognition of her mother's identity and her consequent disfigurement are the great turning idea of the story" (163). I was deeply enthralled by his treatment of this subject and by his very clear idea that through the experience of disfigurement, which, according to Jordan, Esther did wish for, "she not only complies with what she imagines to be her mother's unspoken wish; she also identifies with her mother-adopting, like Lady Dedlock, a mask of impassivity, a mask of death, in order to protect the secret of their common past" (54).
This fortunate stress on erasure confirms the importance of the efforts lately made by scholars like Nicholas Dames who, by focusing on microhistory in their treatment of the Victorian novel instead of adapting it to later epistemological categories, have given new breadth to a genre whose theoretic value had been seriously compromised in the twentieth century because of the "anachronistic" values it seemed to endorse. (See Nicholas Dames Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810-1870 .) Assuming that, unlike the more revolutionary French fiction, the Victorian novel is less interested in changing the way of the world than it is in helping its characters to make their way into it, Dames's main point is that personal encumbrances like memory are not welcome in this process. Memory prevents characters from projecting their life onward and plunges them back in a state where the past is overwhelming. Bleak House may not be a standard Victorian novel, but it is quintessentially Victorian in the way Dames would consider the genre to be: think of the difference between Richard Carstone, who fails to undertake any career because of his ultimate commitment to Jarndyce & Jarndyce, and Esther, who appears so committed to fashion a new successful self that, if one agrees with Jordan that her disfigurement was looked for, then it may follow that her reasons for preferring such an outcome may be far from masochistic. In fact, they may be related to the development of her "amnesiac self," one that, in order to achieve its goal, is willing not simply to renegotiate the past, but to erase it. No wonder Lady Dedlock and Mr. Jarndyce prefer the medium of printed paper to deliver information of momentous importance to Esther: as many readers of Bleak House agree, her character can be really hard to face.
KEATS-SHELLEY HOUSE, ROME